New York City was my home for 22 years and the setting for many adventures, drunk and sober. Living there, I also met some of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever encountered in my life. When I started to make the painful plans to leave New York last year, I knew that saying goodbye to people, whether with some grand party or with individual get-togethers, would be extremely difficult on several levels, particularly on the emotional level. I couldn’t get to everyone. Even if I came back to visit within the next year, time and age brought a kind of urgency with respect to saying goodbye to certain people. Cyril Brosnan was one of those people.
I met Cyril in around 2004, a couple of years into my sobriety. He was in his mid-70s then with over 30 years sober, and he came to share his experience, strength and hope at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I frequented at the time.
What struck me about Cyril was his naked honesty, his unapologetic approach to the program of A.A. (which sometimes ruffled a few feathers) and his delicious wit. With his shock white hair, glasses, pale Irish complexion and rumpled suit, he looked like an elderly version of Dennis the Menace. Never before had I seen someone so unashamed of his drunken shenanigans and so able to freely laugh about it without forgetting the life and death seriousness of alcoholism and recovery.
What really attracted me to Cyril was his openness about his struggles with (and resistance to) the program in his early days. Like me, he was raised Catholic in a Midwest town on a Great Lake where it was not okay to be a little gay boy. (He was from Chicago; I was from Cleveland.) Like me, he made it to the Emerald City of New York to find whatever and whomever, living his life “by the pleasure principle,” as he would often say.
Cyril was an atheist, and the first person I’d ever met who admitted such without shame. In my early days getting sober in A.A., I really struggled with the ‘God’ thing. Cyril was the first person (and maybe the only person) who ever assured me that I didn’t have to believe in anything, reminding me that the only requirement for membership in the program is a desire to stop drinking. With or without a God of any understanding, Cyril was an example of someone for whom the program still worked. He went to meetings regularly, nurtured lifetime friendships through the fellowship of A.A. and stayed sober for more than 45 years. (No one’s really sure exactly how long Cyril was sober. Even he lost count. He got sober some time in the early 1970s.)
He was a confirmed bachelor who, to my knowledge, came close to any kind of long-term relationship only once many many years ago. He ultimately preferred the single life and enjoyed his solitude, living alone for the nearly 50 years he resided on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before moving to a rather nice assisted living facility in Hell’s Kitchen a couple of years ago. He was often alone, but he was not necessarily lonely. He certainly had his fun. Maybe he had intimacy issues, but who cares? Cyril would be the first to tell you that he really enjoyed his life and that he enjoyed it on his own terms.
To me, Cyril was the consummate New Yorker, with a voracious appetite for all the arts and culture the city has to offer: theater, film, opera, music, ballet, art… all of it. He was also an avid consumer of the written word. His “briefcase” for his travels around the city was a trusty canvas tote containing The New York Times, the latest issue of The New Yorker, the book he was currently reading and some papers from SAGE, the advocacy group for LGBT elders with which he was very active.
And he was an equal-opportunity enjoyer, too. One night he’d go to the Metropolitan Opera or a charity benefit; that weekend, he’d go to the Miss Sobriety Drag Pageant down in the Village; the next night, I’d see him at a meeting, which we’d follow with dinner and a movie. He lived New York to the full.
Though Cyril had quit smoking decades ago, his description of his habit portrayed the chainiest of chain smokers I’d ever heard of, lighting the next cigarette off the previous and even smoking while showering, keeping a busy ashtray on the sink in the bathroom. But it eventually took its toll. In spite of his age, his emphysema and the COPD he battled for years, he never stopped going to meetings or events he wanted to attend. He was someone who got around and showed up. Only in recent years did I notice him slowing down and declining offers to go out, particularly in extreme heat or cold. The breaks he took to catch his breath while walking a city block became more frequent, and he eventually had to carry a portable oxygen tank to supplement the main oxygen supply he constantly needed in his home.
Cyril was a pillar of my sober living – a wise wizard with 88 years of stories and life experiences. He knew first-hand what it was like as a gay man before Stonewall (he was in the audience at Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall performance), after Stonewall, during the 1970s, through the horror of the AIDS epidemic and all the way into 2017 into his old age. Cyril was a witness and a survivor with a lot to say and the goods to back it up.
With much to say and the increasing impatience for nonsense that naturally comes with age, Cyril could certainly seem ‘crusty’ at times. If he disagreed with something, he had no problem letting his flag fly. As a fierce liberal with very definite opinions about politics and social issues, he was very passionate. And when it came to healthcare and quality of life issues for the elderly in New York City, Cyril was an authority. On the right day and in the right mood, if he thought you were crazy, he’d tell you. I adored that about him. If I make it into my 80s, I’ll probably be the same way.
At the same time, Cyril could exhibit tremendous compassion and a willingness to show up where he could be helpful. He certainly saved my life many times and in many ways, and I know he did the same for many others. Through his wisdom, his experience, his humor and his friendship over the years, he had an ability to settle my rocking boat and restore my perspective and sanity over the course of a dinner.
And about that humor… Inside this white haired old man who could sometimes be a real curmudgeon lived a giant kid – a giggling, naughty, altar boy sneaking-a-cigarette-in-the-sacristy kind of a kid. He loved a dirty joke and a good story, and he had an infectious capacity for laughter. There was nothing like sneaking a glance with him from across a room as you both knew something hilarious and watching him laugh. His head would bow a little bit, his face would get red and his shoulders would shrug and bounce as he would try to suppress his kid-like grin. Whenever I was with Cyril, making him laugh was one of my favorite things to do. He was always game, and it was so much fun.
As I mentioned, I met Cyril in 2004. Every year since then, he called me on my birthday and took me to dinner to celebrate, either on the actual day or the most mutually convenient day after. He also took me to dinner to celebrate many of my anniversaries in sobriety. When my beloved sponsor Merle Hubbard died several years ago, Cyril, who was also very close to Merle, was an immeasurable source of strength for me. In my later years in New York, my “home group” of sober friends and meetings was on the Upper West Side. Cyril was central to that tribe. As I write these very words, I can see him so vividly in a meeting, listening, nodding, speaking, sharing…
Among my fondest memories with Cyril are those Upper West Side meetings, having dinner afterward with our friends at the Viand at W.75th and Broadway, and walking Cyril to his bus stop on Amsterdam Avenue, where we would share more gossip and giggles until his bus came.
My 46th birthday was on November 15th, 2016. To celebrate my birthday and to say goodbye before my big move to Cleveland three days later, Cyril took me to dinner. I picked him up at his newish assisted living residence, which was – for the record – the chicest assisted living residence you could ever want. We went to The Greek Kitchen, a simple and easy casual eatery across 10th Avenue from his apartment where we’d gone several times before. As always, Cyril and I had a delightful time.
After dinner, I walked him home and we sat in his humongous living room for a while, lamenting our fury about the election, talking about my mother (who was in precarious health at the time) and discussing my pending life after New York. As I told him, I was nervous, frightened and sad, all at once. He understood. As it came time for me to leave, I took a good, long look at my friend sitting in his chair and memorized him, because it hit me: this would probably be the last time I would ever see him. And I’m sure he knew it, too.
With that, he said, “Thank you for your friendship and your loyalty. I love you and I will miss you very much.”
We hugged, I gave him a kiss and I headed for the elevator, taking one last glance as he smiled, waved and retreated back into his apartment. When I got out of the building onto West 57th Street, I headed home down 10th Avenue, looking for a dark doorway, an alley or a shadowed corner the way one would look for a place to pee or vomit. Except I didn’t have to pee or vomit. I urgently needed a semi-private place to unleash the sob I had been holding since that last look at Cyril.
* * *
In early April, a mutual friend told me Cyril had been moved to a hospice. As he declined, he was apparently feeling overwhelmed and a little afraid to be alone at night. I called him immediately and we had a delightful conversation. He was very pleased with his new environs and seemed his usual self, albeit more fatigued. We spoke once more since then.
After my morning ritual of newsgathering, I check social media. When I opened Facebook today, the first thing I saw was a post from a friend in New York: “My dear friend, Cyril Brosnan, passed away this morning. He will be missed very much by his many friends.” My heart stopped, my vision clouded and I revisited those sobs I heaved on 10th Avenue on my birthday last November – the birthday that will go down as one of the most treasured birthday dinners of my life.
It’s not that Cyril’s death was a big surprise. We all saw it coming, and it was only a matter of time. I spoke to a mutual friend who was with Cyril the day before he died. He told me that Cyril was ready, which eases the sting a little bit. But no matter how “prepared” you think you are, it’s always a curveball. And it hurts when it hits.
My father died when I was 19. Since then, I’ve consciously and subconsciously adopted several father figures over the years. Cyril was one of them, providing invaluable guidance and counsel. I could probably also consider him an unofficial sponsor in my sobriety. He knew my darkest secrets and my gravest sins, and he returned with unconditional friendship and no judgment.
I am so grateful and so lucky to have had Cyril in my life. He helped me in ways he never knew. And when people came and went over the years, Cyril was steadfast in his friendship. He taught me so much.
I’m a mess today. One of my best friends and one of my favorite people is really gone. The best I think I can do is to wholeheartedly reciprocate the sentiment he shared with me:
“Thank you for your friendship and your loyalty. I love you and I will miss you very much.”